Politics & Government

Republicans abandon vulnerable lawmakers to try to keep at least slim House majority

Rep. Andy Barr and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath
Rep. Andy Barr and Democratic challenger Amy McGrath

DALLAS — Vice President Mike Pence laid out a hopeful vision for the midterm elections this week as he campaigned for Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, telling Republican donors that candidates like Sessions could stop Democrats from winning the House in November.

“The road, they know, to their majority comes right through Pete’s district,” Pence said. Referring to this city’s vote-rich suburbs of undecided moderates, he added, “Make sure the red wave starts here.”

Pence was deploying a favorite image of both Republicans and Democrats this fall: An electoral tidal wave of voters carrying their party to power in Congress. But the point of his trip was not to stir a wave. It was to build a wall.

As they brace for losses in the House of Representatives, Republican Party leaders are racing to reinforce their candidates in about two-dozen districts, trying to create a barricade around their imperiled majority. They are pouring money and effort mainly into moderate suburban areas, like Sessions’ seat, that they see as critical to holding the chamber by even a one-seat margin. And they have begun to pull millions of dollars away from Republican candidates who have fallen substantially behind in once-competitive races.

Republicans steering the House effort, who insisted on anonymity to discuss party strategy, believe that by intensifying their efforts in a smaller number of districts, they can limit Democratic gains to perhaps 20 seats on Nov. 6 — just short of the 23 seats Democrats need to take over the House. Party leaders are counting on a surge of energy from conservative voters to repel Democrats in many of the redder districts on the House map, so that they can concentrate their advertising on teetering purple seats.

Republicans in Congress and the White House see a Democratic takeover in the House as a mortal threat, potentially allowing the opposition party to bring the Republican agenda to a halt and launch far-reaching investigations that could put the Trump administration under siege.

There are between 60 and 70 Republican-held districts that are being seriously contested, and Democrats, boosted by strong fundraising, have been expanding their television advertising in conservative-leaning districts in an effort to stretch Republicans thin. National polls have shown most voters favor a Democratic-led House over a Republican one, though the Democrats’ lead has varied.

In a tactical retreat, Republican groups have already withdrawn some or all funding from a few embattled incumbents, mainly in suburbs where President Donald Trump is unpopular, including Reps. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, Mike Coffman of Colorado and Mike Bishop of Michigan. They have abandoned more than half a dozen seats where Republican lawmakers are not running for re-election, including most recently the Tucson, Arizona-based seat of Rep. Martha McSally, who left to run for Senate.

Party strategists said several other incumbents must recover quickly or risk losing funding, including Reps. Peter Roskam of Illinois and Mimi Walters of California, who represent white-collar suburbs near Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively.

Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the GOP might be helped by the renewed energy of their base following the battle over Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, but he added that independent voters remained a challenge.

“You want to hold your losses to 20 or 22,” Davis said, underscoring Republicans’ vanishingly thin margin for error. “This is the kind of year where Republican are going to have to give up on some races and they’re going to have to make some hard choices.”

Matt Gorman, a spokesman for the Republican committee, said the party is continually “evaluating the best way to use our resources and the best paths forward” to defending the House.

“Our No. 1 goal, above all, is keeping the majority,” Gorman said.

In a memo circulated to Republican donors this week, Corry Bliss, who helms the Congressional Leadership Fund, a powerful super PAC supporting House Republicans, laid out the party’s precarious position. Bliss said the Supreme Court fight had boosted Republican enthusiasm and a few vulnerable incumbents were looking stronger in polling, including Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and Andy Barr of Kentucky.

But Bliss said Republicans were facing a “green wave” of Democratic money, as Democratic challengers raise enormous sums online and donors like Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, pour millions into anti-Republican ads.

“There are 20 races within 4 points that will determine the House majority, and CLF will keep working to win them,” Bliss wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

Democrats believe Republicans will not be able to shrink the House battlefield: Democratic groups have taken an aggressive approach to the map, probing Republican vulnerability even in districts that tilt to the right. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently began advertising in six conservative-leaning seats, from rural Pennsylvania to the suburbs of Little Rock, Arkansas, where they see Republicans slipping.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, who chairs the Democratic committee, said the landscape of competitive races was already too broad for Republicans to build an electoral firewall around a chosen few.

“Many of these districts are closing our way,” Luján said, adding: “There are many paths for us to get to a majority.”

Luján wryly pointed to Sessions, 63, as an example of Republican distress, noting that the Republican candidate had suggested last year he would not need help from the national party. Now, Luján said, Sessions is “calling the cavalry home to see if they can defend that seat” against Colin Allred, his Democratic challenger.

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The Dallas race reflects the territory where Republicans plan to stand and fight. It is a diverse district, about half white, and a highly educated one, with more than two-fifths of residents holding college degrees. Though it has long tilted toward Republicans, voters favored Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016, and Trump remains unpopular according to polling conducted by both parties. The streets are dotted with “Beto for Senate” signs, and Republicans expect Sen. Ted Cruz’s Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, to carry the area.

But this is by no means a left-leaning district: many moderates here tend to be registered Republicans, and Democrats have struggled in the past to mobilize its sizable Latino, black and Asian-American communities in congressional elections.

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Sessions, a House committee chairman, is in a close race with Allred, 35, a civil rights lawyer whom Republicans have sought to brand as a liberal. A poll conducted by The Times and Siena College found the two effectively tied, and both parties are saturating the district with advertising.

House Majority PAC, the main Democratic outside group focused on the House, began a $2.3 million ad campaign against Sessions this week, attacking his two-decade tenure in Congress and his vote last year to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Dallas Mayor Michael S. Rawlings, a Democrat who holds a nonpartisan office, said Sessions was at risk of losing because voters wanted to rebuke Washington, and Trump most of all. Rawlings, a moderate who has avoided endorsing in House races, said he was backing Allred in part because Sessions had failed to be a “moral leader” and challenge offensive Trump administration policies, like its ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.

“This race represents a major part of Dallas that is very centrist, which I identify with and I’m an example of — business individuals, families that have careers in commerce,” Rawlings said. He faulted Sessions for his close alignment with the president, saying “I think the environment around him changed, and he made his choices the way he decided to make them.”

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Republicans are determined to contain their losses in areas precisely like the one Rawlings described, where most voters have supported Republicans in the past but are repelled by Trump. Private Republican polling has shown conservative voters growing more enthusiastic over the last few weeks, but Democrats are still more energized, and moderate voters are currently leaning their way.

Republicans say they are prepared to make ruthless choices in these districts. In the suburbs ringing Philadelphia, for example, they may soon redirect money out of an open-seat race where they are trailing, in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, and funnel it to Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, who are in difficult races.

In races where they believe they can rescue embattled incumbents, Republicans must still overcome suspicion among moderate white voters, especially women. In Pennsylvania, for instance, Patricia Hankins, a retired computer programmer, said she had supported Fitzpatrick in the past but this year planned to vote for his Democratic challenger, Scott Wallace, a wealthy investor.

Hankins, 56, said she still liked Fitzpatrick but was frustrated by the lack of federal action on gun control and wanted Democrats to take the majority.

“The Republican Party has gone so far to the right that you can’t even really have reasonable conversations,” Hankins said.

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After Pence’s event in Dallas on Monday, Maryann Collins, a local Republican precinct leader, expressed optimism that more conservative voters were finally getting energized to block Democrats from gaining control. Collins, who said she is “86 and proud of it,” said the Supreme Court fight had “fired a lot of people up.”

“They’re more determined than ever that they’re not going to let the nuts take over,” Collins said.

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